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An Israeli-Kurdish conflict? by Turkey RPCV Robert Olsen
An Israeli-Kurdish conflict? by Turkey RPCV Robert Olsen
An Israeli-Kurdish conflict?
(This article first appeared in Kurdistan Report, No. 24, December 1996) Robert Olson, Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies University of Kentucky
The main thrust of the Israel-Turkey Defense Pact seems to be directed against the Kurdish nationalist movement in the Middle East and particularly against the PKK in Turkey. The question must be asked why Israel and its support would want to take on the Kurds after so recently subduing the Palestinian nationalist movement and Arab nationalism: a struggle which has lasted for over a century. The answer seems to be that Israel perceives its future well-being and potential dominant economic role, fueled by American, European and international capital as being dependent on access to plentiful and reasonably priced water. The water is in Turkey. Most of it is in heavily Kurdish populated areas in eastern and southeastern Turkey in which the head waters and tributaries of the Euphrates and Tigris rise.
Ironically two other potential sources of water for Israel and for its Palestinian and Arab partners, the Seyhan and Ceyhan rivers in the Cilician plain, While formerly outside of Turkish KurdistanÕs geography, have become more heavily populated by Kurds as a result of the ethnic cleansing practices carried out by the Turkish government in the past decade and which have intensified since the Gulf war as reported in MEI 523 and 527. Adana, the largest city in the plain, and through which the Seyhan flows, may now well have a population that is more than 25 percent Kurdish. This is the same region that has two oil pipelines (recently reopened ) emanating from Iraqi Kurdistan that terminate at Yumurtalik an the Mediterranean shore. The two oil pipelines and the four rivers Seyhan, Ceyhan, Euphrates and Tigris symbolize the confluence of two of the region's and the worlds most prized commodities: oil and water. Oil for the US, Europe, other Western countries and Japan and water for Israel and its coterie of new Arab partners. Water for the latter, especially the Palestinians and Jordanians, is needed to assure sufficient economic growth to control nationalist unrest that is increasingly expressing itself in Islamist movements and discourse. Increased Arab nationalism in the eastern Mediterranean always presents the risk of spreading to the Gulf region and threatening the regimes who control the oil supplies for the West and Japan.
The increased strength, growth and success of the Kurdish nationalist movement and, especially the PKK, present obstacles to Israel, its Arab partners and the West's need for access to the waters in Turkey. As a result Israel has decided to support more publicly than ever before Turkey's war against the Kurds. It is quite true that the defense pact is also directed against Syria and Iran as reported in MEI 526. In the case of Syria, Israel perceives the pact as being able to kill two birds with one stone. One bird is the Asad regime in Damascus and the other is Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK who resides in Syria and Lebanon. By tightening pincers on Asad, Ankara and Tel Aviv hope to make him cough-up Ocalan and compel Ocalan to flee Syria to somewhere else where he could be more easily assassinated. Ocalan's flight from Syria and/or his death would weaken the PKK and the dominant role that it plays in the Kurdish nationalist movement in Turkey and increasingly in northern Iraq. If Israel could aid Turkey in achieving these goals, Ankara would undoubtedly be most obliging with its water when conditions are favorable for its downward flow to Israel and vicinity.
It must be taken as a given fact that the Kurdish nationalist movement in Turkey and the PKK represent a dire threat not just to the Turkish government as presently configured, but to the existence of the Turkish state itself. The Kurdish problem, as Ankara euphemistically calls the Kurdish nationalist movement, impacts negatively on all of Turkey's domestic and foreign policies. Nothing illustrates this better than Foreign Minister Emre Gonensay's recent acknowledgment that he too almost shed tears along with Kirghizistan Prime Minister Rosa Otunbaeva when she said amidst tears, "Turkey was our hope:What happened to you?" Gonensay should have replied: "It was the Kurds."
As perceived in Ankara, the very existence of Turkey depends on the eradication of the PKK. After eliminating the PKK, Ankara hopes to implement a series of Policies and programs( many of them still oppressive) to control and to co-opt the Kurdish nationalist movement. But in more than a decade of war, Ankara has been unable to eliminate the PKK and, hence, the SOS to Tel Aviv. How far will Israel and the new Likud government go in helping Turkey get rid of the PKK and Ocalan? Apparently quite far.
On 24-25 May, Israel's ambassador to turkey, Zvi Elpeleg, along with some intelligence and military officials, visited Hatay, just a few days after Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz had visited the region. Less than ten days later there were reported a series of explosions in Syria clashes between Turkish and Syriantroops and even an assassination attempt on President Assad. Some of these actions reported to have been carried out by Turkmen who live in Hatay and who have brethren living in Syria. In this regard it must be noted that the PKK operations in Hatay have targeted the Sunni Turkmen that Turkey settled in the province after it was annexed in 1939 in order to Sunnize the region. The bulk of the population in 1939 was comprised of Alawite Arabs as is 10 to 11 percent of Syrian population. The top echelons of the Syrian government are also predominately Alawite. By attacking the Sunni Turkmen villagers who had been supplied with weapons by the government to flight the PKK, the PKK hoped to gather support from the Alawite Arab population. If the Turkish government is behind the Turkmen activities, it may express Ankara's unhappiness wit PKK efforts to establish itself in Hatay with Syrian support and conversely its support for the Turkmen attempts to destabilize the Assad regime. In addition, in the middle of June the Turkish press was reporting that Hatay had become the major avenue for PKK infiltration into Turkey.
There is no doubt that Turkey possesses the wherewithal to stage such operations. Dogu Perincek, the General Secretary of the Turkish Workers Party (TIP) and usually a reliable source, alleged that the bulk of former prime minister Tansu Ciller's $6 million dollar slush fund, which has caused a great brouhaha in Turkish politics of late, was used to create a special intelligence and 'provocation' organization. Such an organization was used, Perincek claims, in Azerbaijan, Iraq, Iran and Chechnya.
It would not be unreasonable for Damascus to see a connection between Elpeleg's and et al's visit to Hatay, the alleged creation of a special intelligence organization designed to carry out provocative acts and the subsequent events in Syria. Elpeleg's and other Israeli officials presence in Hatay and Israel's aid intelligence information, intelligence equipment and possibly training personnel to Turkey in order to better fight the PKK would certainly mark an escalation in the conflict between Israel and the Kurdish nationalist movement. It will pay to keep an eye on developments. Given the fate of Yahya Ayyash and Dzhokbar Dudayev, Mr. Ocalan would be well advised to stay away from his cellular telephone.